Green spaces: The High Bridge that spans New York’s boroughs

After four decades of neglect, a Dh22.4-million project has restored The High Bridge and its connected park areas in New York to its former glory.

The newly reopened High Bridge and Highbridge Park in New York. Bebeto Matthews / AP Photo
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The High Bridge may not be New York’s most famous bridge, but it is its oldest. This 19th-century landmark, flanked on both sides by Highbridge Park, sat unused for more than four decades until it was reopened to the public this summer.

Extending for 400 metres over the Harlem River, and connecting Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighbourhood on one side and Highbridge in The Bronx on the other, the bridge was part of the Croton Aqueduct system, the Big Apple’s first ­water supply system. Built in the mid 1800s, the aqueduct carried water from the Croton River in Westchester to Manhattan’s 19th-century residents, replacing the wells, springs and ponds that had been used until that time.

The bridge officially opened in 1848, and its walkway was completed in 1864, quickly becoming a popular attraction for promenading New Yorkers and tourists alike, as well as a preferred subject for artists and photographers of the time. Its popularity spurred the construction of hotels, restaurants and amusement parks in the vicinity.

"Every resident of the city knows where High Bridge is, no matter how dense his ignorance may be as to the other points of the water service," wrote ­Scribner's Weekly in 1877.

The historical importance of The High Bridge cannot be underestimated – an abundance of clean water helped to drive a population boom in the city, laying the foundations for its evolution into the megalopolis that it is today. Its historical significance is now being highlighted through events such as the upcoming ­Historic New York: Old Croton Aqueduct programme on September 20, where, over the course of a two-hour hike across the bridge, Urban Park Rangers will outline the importance of this long-forgotten landmark in facilitating the success and growth of the city, particularly in the 1880s, when the water it provided proved instrumental in combating a cholera outbreak.

By the end of the 1960s, however, the bridge had become little more than a relic. Public use and appreciation waned with the construction of the ­Major Deegan Expressway in 1956 and the Harlem River Drive in 1964. The river became polluted, paths were blocked and visitors no longer flocked to the parks to enjoy their waterfront vistas. In the 1970s, public access to the bridge was discontinued.

The bridge was saved from disappearing into the annals of history by groups such as The High Bridge Coalition and Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, who campaigned to have it reopened. In 2013, 165 years since it first opened, the then mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg marked the initiation of a US$61 million (Dh224m) project, led by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, to restore the bridge to its former glory and improve the two parks on either end.

While a few final bits of construction work are still under way on the bridge, it’s currently open to pedestrians and cyclists. Designed by the chief aqueduct engineer John B Jervis, the original structure featured 15 imposing masonry arches. In the 1920s, proposals to pull down the bridge, which was deemed “a hazard to navigation”, were met with ­public protest. As a ­compromise, the 15 original arches were replaced by a single steel arch in 1928. It’s protected from any future removal efforts by its New York City landmark status, and it also shares the aqueduct’s National Historic ­Landmark designation.

On the Manhattan side of the structure sits the commanding High Bridge Tower, which was built in 1872. Highbridge Park on this end of the bridge was assembled, bit by bit, between 1867 and the 1960s, but much was acquired following building condemnations between 1895 and 1901. The park is home to the city’s first mountain-biking course and a skate park, while the Highbridge Recreation Center and Pool have kept local residents entertained since the 1930s, and a number of playgrounds and playing fields have sprouted up across the park over the past century. A unique geological make-up includes forest, cliffs and large rock outcrops.

The parks have also suffered their fair share of neglect over the years, but efforts are under way to retame this 119-acre wilderness. The New York Restoration ­Project – a non-profit organisation founded by Bette Midler in 1995, and dedicated to planting trees, renovating gardens, restoring parks and transforming open spaces for communities throughout New York City’s five boroughs – is currently responsible for maintaining the northern half of Highbridge Park. NYRP staff work full-time to manage and restore the park’s forests and clear tons of rubbish each year. The organisation is also working to replace invasive, non-­native species such as Norway maple with oak and dogwood, and plant shrubs, ground cover and ­wildflowers.

Currently on show on the esplanade leading up to the bridge is a public exhibition entitled Oh Sit! 14 Sculptors Consider the Chair, a group endeavour featuring creations by the artists Dan Bergman, Allan Cyprys, Robert Dell, Gregoire Ferland, Esther Grillo, Christina Jorge, Siena ­Gillann Porta, Herb Rosenberg and Chuck von Schmidt. Each artist has been invited to respond imaginatively to the notion of sitting, and the exhibition, which runs until November 8, is "a way of asking the viewer to look and really consider the concept 'chair' both objectively and subjectively", according to the event organisers, which include NYC Parks, New York ­Foundation for the Arts and ­Rockaway Artist ­Alliance.

The long-awaited reopening of The High Bridge has brought obvious comparisons with New York’s High Line, a former freight rail line running above the streets of Manhattan’s West Side that was converted into a public park in the early 2000s. Extending from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street, this ingenious walkway provides visitors with a unique way to experience the city, and is the site of gardens, public art installations and a constant stream of pedestrians.

But for now at least, The High Bridge is a rather more sedate affair, a little piece of reclaimed history that’s a testament to people’s needs for green, public spaces in any city.

For more information on The High Bridge, visit

Green Spaces is a series that features notable gardens and public spaces from around the world.

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